Opinion Extra

A new use for the humble peanut

In Pelion, they have a whole festival to celebrate the peanut.
In Pelion, they have a whole festival to celebrate the peanut. tglantz@thestate.com

My daughter has a friend who has a trick question to find out if people are Canadian or American. She asks them if they know who George Washington Carver was.

Most Americans know. Most Canadians don’t.

__________

SC farmers making peanuts a native crop

Photos: Peanut farming in SC

Gamecock Game Day recipes: Georgia peanut hummus

__________

Our neighbors from up north know George Washington. It’s the Carver that stumps them.

I like to think this quiz also reflects our great nation’s longstanding love affair with the peanut — especially down South, home of boiled peanuts.

The South is where most peanuts are grown. Eight of the 10 states that grow 99 percent of the nation’s peanuts are in the Deep South, and Georgia alone accounts for 42 percent of the crop.

G.W. Carver spent much of his career trying to find new uses for peanuts, and managed to raise the humble ground nut to a place of esteem in the food chain and as a source of nutrition for the poor. But peanuts rarely enter the realm of high cuisine. They remain, instead, a plentiful staple at cocktail and tailgate parties, something to dump into a bottle of Coca Cola (very Southern) and the only necessary ingredient in peanut butter.

But thanks to a Georgia dirt farmer, peanuts soon could be elevated to the status of fancy food.

The New York Times recently featured a lengthy story about Clay Oliver of Pitts, Ga., who, during the worst of the recession, needed to find a way to cover the cost of running the 100-year-old family farm that had been left to him and his brother by their recently deceased father. Oliver thought of trying to produce biofuel or making cold-pressed canola oil.

Then he hit on the idea of using the press to produce oil from peanuts. Green peanuts.

Standard peanut oil, the kind sold in four-gallon containers around Thanksgiving for frying turkeys, is made from roasted peanuts. That produces a neutral-flavored oil that can stand up to high temperatures for a long time.

Oliver’s stroke of genius, The Times reports, was pressing raw green Carolina runner peanuts, the kind often used for boiled peanuts. While the oil did not take off at first, it eventually impressed two renowned chefs, Steven Satterfield of Atlanta’s Miller Union restaurant and the renowned Sean Brock, who owns McCrady’s in Charleston.

“The first time I tasted it, it was as if I was standing in a field pulling the peanuts out of the ground and eating them,” Brock told The Times. “This tastes alive. This tastes vibrant. It tastes like fresh dirt. It’s that moment the plant comes up from the earth and the oxygen hits it for the first time.”

The two chefs promoted the oil on an episode of PBS’s “The Mind of a Chef,” and the story of Oliver’s special oil was highlighted in magazines such as Southern Living and Garden & Gun. And in 2016, Oliver won a prestigious Good Food Award from a group in San Francisco that promotes high-quality, small-batch foods.

Brock, Satterfield and other chefs now are enthusiastically featuring what Satterfield dubbed “green peanut oil” (far more entrancing that just “peanut oil”) on their menus. Home chefs can buy it on the website oliverfarm.com for $12 and shipping costs for a 16-ounce bottle.

I love cold-pressed virgin olive oil. But the idea of a pale, earthy, fresh-tasting oil made from the lowly green peanut is thrilling. It’s like an ancient Mediterranean tradition — birthed in red clay and derived from a crop that is harvested by the hundreds of thousands of bushels.

It also seems distinctly American — the rise of something noble from humble beginnings. George Washington Carver would be proud.

Contact Mr. Werrell at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.

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